Easter is the central mystery and feast of the Christian faith. Likewise, it is the only promise to mankind that, ultimately, means anything. The greatest, perhaps only service the Church can perform for each of us is to be sure we hear this message, this doctrine, as it is taught, not as some theologian, or philosopher, might mitigate or lessen it in his speculations.
Aristotle, in his discussion of friendship — a discussion to which the doctrine of the resurrection is ultimately related – remarks that no one would want to receive all the blessings and goods of the world on the condition of his becoming someone else, not himself. That is to say, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is mostly unbelievable because it does affirm final beatitude not to the vague world of “humanity” down the ages, but to each of us, in our particularity. To teach anything less is to teach despair – something, alas, not infrequently taught in higher academic circles.
What I especially like about the orthodox Christian doctrine, I think, is that I did not make it up myself. In fact, it is the last sort of thing I would have ever concocted on my own. That is, what is presented, defined, in the tradition on this topic is much more glorious, more romantic even, than any more sober liberal view which would supposedly give us everything but what we might actually want. “Nothing is more repulsive to me than the idea of myself setting up a little universe of my own choosing and propounding a little immoralistic universe,” Flannery O’Connor wrote on St. Patrick’s Day, 1956.
A friend of mine wrote recently of a priest friend of hers who learned he had serious cancer. “Poor man,” she reflected in the most basic of terms the laity teach the clergy, “his voice was cracking as he told me of his troubles. Such a crucial time for us poor humans, when we each must directly face the fact of not existing in the only manner we have yet experienced.” This is the orthodox Christian terminology.
In a Peanuts episode, Marcie and Peppermint Patty have just listened to a campfire speaker talk about the world’s last day. This speech frightened Patty, so she could not sleep. “What if the world comes to an end tonight, Marcie?” Marcie replies, with clear logic, “I promise there’ll be a tomorrow, Sir, ….In fact, it’s already tomorrow in Australia.” But Patty is still worried: “He said we’re in the last days, Marcie.” But Marcie just turns over and says, reassuringly, “Go to sleep, Sir….The sun is shining in Australia.”
This conversation is just whacky enough to be wonderful. Don’t worry about the end of the world, because, at the end of the world, in Australia, it is already tomorrow.
Samuel Johnson was accustomed to take Easter as a serious occasion for self-reflection and prayer. He was quite conscious of how little, often, we improve, even when we try. In 1765, he wrote in his Easter meditations:
I purpose again to partake of the blessed sacrament; yet when I consider how vainly I have hitherto resolved at this annual commemoration of my Saviour’s death, to regulate my life by his laws, I am almost afraid to renew my resolutions.
Yet, Johnson, of all people, would have understood about the sun shining in Australia and the folly of our immoralistic messages to ourselves that would leave us content with our own world. The real despair is to believe that there is nothing to renew, that we are as we are because we are already as we ought to be. My friend was right, we do not yet exist in a manner in which we have not yet experienced, in a manner promised to us.
The Chesterton Review, that inexhaustible source of sanity, recently redid an essay of Chesterton on birthdays, in which he pointed out the central and basic nature for us, not of the things we make, but of the things that we are given. The most difficult and most wondrous things, I have always felt, are not what we “make” but the things that are given to us. I do not say that to knock what we make; quite the opposite. But the fact is that all the higher things – truth, wonder, friendship, and joy – such things, in the final analysis, are simply given, almost as if such things already exist in some personal way, and we are merely in a kind of vale of shadows waiting for them to break into our world, like the light in Australia on the last day.
Chesterton wrote on the first day of Spring in 1933:
Modern thinkers of this kind have simply no philosophy or poetry or possible attitude at all, towards the things which they receive from the real world that exists already; from the past; from the parent; from the patriotic tradition or the moral philosophy of mankind. They only talk about making things, as if they could make themselves as well as everything else. They are always talking about making a religion; and cannot get into their heads the very notion of receiving a revelation. They are always talking about making a creed; without seeing that it involves making a cosmos….There is a whole problem of the human mind, which is necessarily concerned with the things it did not make; with the things it could not make, including itself. And I say it is a narrow view of life, which leaves out the whole of that aspect of life; all receptivity, all gratitude, all inheritance, all worship.
Imagine someone in 1933 reminding us that we did not make ourselves! Easter reminds us that we did not make ourselves and likewise that we do not save ourselves. And this is really the best thing about this wonderful feast; for if we did save ourselves, we would have concocted a very paltry future, probably in this world, probably something like what we already know. Such a faith, such a work, would be a very narrow doctrine, yielding quite a repulsive little universe. I prefer the idea that at the end of the world, it is already tomorrow in Australia, that gratitude, receptivity, and worship are elicited from us in the world that already is, for, as our creed teaches, it is in this world we are called to resurrection and glory, no other.